OW suggestive it is, swinging there through sunlight and shadow from the long drooping tips of the old elm boughs! And what a delightful cradle for the young orioles, swayed all day long by every breath of the summer breeze, peeping through chinks as the world sweeps by, watching with bright eyes the boy below who looks up in vain, or the mountain of hay that brushes them in passing, and whistling cheerily, blow high or low, with never a fear of falling! The mother bird must feel very comfortable about it as she goes off caterpillar hunting, for no bird enemy can trouble the little ones while she is gone. The black snake, that horror of all low-nesting birds, will never climb so high. The red squirrel—little wretch that he is, to eat young birds when he has still a bushel of corn and nuts in his old wall—cannot find a footing on those delicate branches. Neither can the crow find a resting place from which to steal the young; and the hawk's legs are not long enough to reach down and grasp them, should he perchance venture near the house and hover an instant over the nest.
Besides all this, the oriole is a neighborly little body; and that helps her. Though the young are kept from harm anywhere by the cunning instinct which builds a hanging nest, she still prefers to build near the house, where hawks and crows and owls rarely come. She knows her friends and takes advantage of their protection, returning year after year to the same old elm, and, like a thrifty little housewife, carefully saving and sorting the good threads of her storm-wrecked old house to be used in building the new.
Of late years, however, it has seemed to me that the pretty nests on the secluded streets of New England towns are growing scarcer. The orioles are peace-loving birds, and dislike the society of those noisy, pugnacious little rascals, the English sparrows, which have of late taken possession of our streets. Often now I find the nests far away from any house, on lonely roads where a few years ago they were rarely seen. Sometimes also a solitary farmhouse, too far from the town to be much visited by sparrows, has two or three nests swinging about it in its old elms, where formerly there was but one.
It is an interesting evidence of the bird's keen instinct that where nests are built on lonely roads and away from houses they are noticeably deeper, and so better protected from bird enemies. The same thing is sometimes noticed of nests built in maple or apple trees, which are without the protection of drooping branches, upon which birds of prey can find no footing. Some wise birds secure the same protection by simply contracting the neck of the nest, instead of building a deep one. Young birds building their first nests seem afraid to trust in the strength of their own weaving. Their nests are invariably shallow, and so suffer most from birds of prey.
In the choice of building material the birds are very careful. They know well that no branch supports the nest from beneath; that the safety of the young orioles depends on good, strong material well woven together. In some wise way they seem to know at a glance whether a thread is strong enough to be trusted; but sometimes, in selecting the first threads that are to bear the whole weight of the nest, they are unwilling to trust to appearances. At such times a pair of birds may be seen holding a little tug-of-war, with feet braced, shaking and pulling the thread like a pair of terriers, till it is well tested.
It is in gathering and testing the materials for a nest that the orioles display no little ingenuity. One day, a few years ago, I was lying under some shrubs, watching a pair of the birds that were building close to the house. It was a typical nest-making day, the sun pouring his bright rays through delicate green leaves and a glory of white apple blossoms, the air filled with warmth and fragrance, birds and bees busy everywhere. Orioles seem always happy; to-day they quite overflowed in the midst of all the brightness, though materials were scarce and they must needs be diligent.
The female was very industrious, never returning to the nest without some contribution, while the male frolicked about the trees in his brilliant orange and black, whistling his warm rich notes, and seeming like a dash of southern sunshine amidst the blossoms. Sometimes he stopped in his frolic to find a bit of string, over which he raised an impromptu jubilate, or to fly with his mate to the nest, uttering that soft rich twitter of his in a mixture of blarney and congratulation whenever she found some particularly choice material. But his chief part seemed to be to furnish the celebration, while she took care of the nest-making.
Out in front of me, under the lee of the old wall whither some line-stripping gale had blown it, was a torn fragment of cloth with loose threads showing everywhere. I was wondering why the birds did not utilize it, when the male, in one of his lively flights, discovered it and flew down. First he hopped all around it; next he tried some threads; but, as the cloth was lying loose on the grass, the whole piece came whenever he pulled. For a few moments he worked diligently, trying a pull on each side in succession. Once he tumbled end over end in a comical scramble, as the fragment caught on a grass stub but gave way when he had braced himself and was pulling hardest. Quite abruptly he flew off, and I thought he had given up the attempt.
In a minute he was back with his mate, thinking, no doubt, that she, as a capable little manager, would know all about such things. If birds do not talk, they have at least some very ingenious ways of letting one another know what they think, which amounts to the same thing.
The two worked together for some minutes, getting an occasional thread, but not enough to pay for the labor. The trouble was that both pulled together on the same side; and so they merely dragged the bit of cloth all over the lawn, instead of pulling out the threads they wanted. Once they unraveled a long thread by pulling at right angles, but the next moment they were together on the same side again. The male seemed to do, not as he was told, but exactly what he saw his mate do. Whenever she pulled at a thread, he hopped around, as close to her as he could get, and pulled too.
Twice they had given up the attempt, only to return after hunting diligently elsewhere. Good material was scarce that season. I was wondering how long their patience would last, when the female suddenly seized the cloth by a corner and flew along close to the ground, dragging it after her, chirping loudly the while. She disappeared into a crab-apple tree in a corner of the garden, whither the male followed her a moment later.
Curious as to what they were doing, yet fearing to disturb them, I waited where I was till I saw both birds fly to the nest, each with some long threads. This was repeated; and then curiosity got the better of consideration. While the orioles were weaving the last threads into their nest, I ran round the house, crept a long way behind the old wall, and so to a safe hiding place near the crab-apple.
The orioles had solved their problem; the bit of cloth was fastened there securely among the thorns. Soon the birds came back and, seizing some threads by the ends, raveled them out without difficulty. It was the work of but a moment to gather as much material as they could use at one weaving. For an hour or more I watched them working industriously between the crab-apple and the old elm, where the nest was growing rapidly to a beautiful depth. Several times the bit of cloth slipped from the thorns as the birds pulled upon it; but as often as it did they carried it back and fastened it more securely, till at last it grew so snarled that they could get no more long threads, when they left it for good.
That same day I carried out some bright-colored bits of worsted and ribbon, and scattered them on the grass. The birds soon found them and used them in completing their nest. For a while a gayer little dwelling was never seen in a tree. The bright bits of color in the soft gray of the walls gave the nest always a holiday appearance, in good keeping with the high spirits of the orioles. But by the time the young had chipped the shell, and the joyousness of nest-building had given place to the constant duties of filling hungry little mouths, the rains and the sun of summer had bleached the bright colors to a uniform sober gray.
That was a happy family from beginning to end. No accident ever befell it; no enemy disturbed its peace. And when the young birds had flown away to the South, I took down the nest which I had helped to build, and hung it in my study as a souvenir of my bright little neighbors.